Half a Million Acres of the Scottish Highlands Will Be Rewilded

This large-scale nature restoration is crucial for tackling the climate crisis.

birders in Scotland

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

An ambitious rewilding project will play a major role in restoring Scotland's natural environment. Over thirty years, an initiative run by the charity Trees for Life will link up a huge swath of 500,000 acres, known as the Affric Highlands, as one vast nature recovery area. The initiative follows three years of consultation between Rewilding Europe, Trees for Life, and other local partners and stakeholders. 

“With Scotland’s rewilding movement growing rapidly—and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance calling for Scotland to become the world’s first Rewilding Nation, with the rewilding of 30% of the country’s land and sea by 2030—Affric Highlands will take large-scale nature recovery to a new level, providing a catalyst for the local economy at the same time,” said Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life.

A diverse group of landowners covering 25% of the project site and six organizations are already on board. Work is being undertaken to further involve local people, and practical action to connect rewilded areas is due to begin in 2023. That's when the 10,000-acre estate at Dundreggan in Glenmoriston, where impressive restoration work of the Caledonian Forest has already been done, will become the site of the world's first Rewilding Centre.

This large-scale project has become the ninth member of Rewilding Europe's network of pioneering rewilding sites. 

“Affric Highlands is a bold, exciting and inspiring venture for nature’s recovery as Scotland moves up the biodiversity league table. Our decision to accept the project as our ninth rewilding area reflects the hard work and achievements of Trees for Life, its volunteers, and its partners,” said Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe.

Scotland Could Be a Leader in Rewilding

Richard Bunting, a spokesperson for Trees for Life, told Treehugger, “Scotland could be leading the way in rewilding, but remains one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. Many of its habitats are in a bad way, many of its species are declining or already extinct, and its rural landscapes and coastal areas now support fewer people than they used to.

“As Scotland gears up to host the UN’s COP26 climate summit in November—with the United Nations warning that climate breakdown is code red for humanity, and experts warning that we have entered the sixth mass extinction—we urgently need big and bold initiatives like this.”

As the Scottish Rewilding Alliance states:

“Imagine a Scotland where nature is reawakened. Where a rich tapestry of native woodlands, wetlands, wildflower meadows, and grasslands is stitched back together. Where land and seas teem with life. Where people feel connected to the natural world, wherever they live. And where nature-based enterprises support thriving communities far and wide. This is our vision of rewilding. This is why we’re calling on Scotland to become the world’s first Rewilding Nation.”

Why Rewilding Is Important

There is a growing understanding in Scotland (and elsewhere) that rewilding is a crucial step for our future—for people, fauna, flora, and in tackling our climate and biodiversity crises. 

“Large-scale initiatives like this are hugely important,” said the Trees for Life spokesperson,  “because rewilding—large-scale nature restoration—can boost biodiversity, create carbon dioxide sinks, and reduce the impacts of climate breakdown such as flooding, all while offering fresh opportunities for communities and local economies, and for people to connect with nature and wild places. It's an opportunity to restore and expand native woodlands and peatlands, and to benefit all sorts of wildlife.”

Tree planting is crucial to this rewilding scheme; but holistic thinking means that all elements of the ecosystems are considered. Trees for Life also explores the potential for rewilding in protecting existing wildlife and increasing wildlife diversity in the region.

Scottish wildcat in tree
A Scottish Wildcat hides in a tree while waiting for its prey.

charliebishop/Getty Images

“The Affric Highlands emblem is the wildcat. The region contains much suitable habitat for this vanishing species, so if wildcats are still clinging on here, there may be opportunities to reinforce their populations. And if they have been lost from the region, there may be opportunities to reintroduce them.

“Connectivity of habitats is extremely important—and addressing this will represent a big shift from the present situation, because currently lots of the habitats are fragmented and isolated. By creating one vast nature recovery areas we will be able to start connecting the habitats, allowing wildlife and plants to spread and expand, and benefiting species including golden eagles, otters, wood ants, pollinating insects, red squirrels, black grouse, pine martens, mountain hares, and maybe even wildcats and, who knows, one day beavers and lynx.

This project offers hope for a more sustainable, healthy and diverse future for Scotland.